I’m currently about one-fifth of my way through David Wootton’s monumental new book, The Invention of Science: a new history of the Scientific Revolution. I’m enjoying it very much indeed. Wootton sees the invention of modern science as something that unfolded between 1572 (marked by Tycho Brahe’s observation of a nova in the constellation of Cassiopeia) and 1704 (when Isaac Newton published his book Opticks). So, basically, we’re talking about the seventeenth century, which sounds about right to this non-expert.
In a couple of places in the early chapters, Wootton mentions that, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, gunpowder, printing, and the nautical compass were generally seen as the three modern inventions that best demonstrated how latterday ingenuity had surpassed that of the ancients. This assertion suddenly revived an ancient memory from deep in my own past. It involved my first attempt at writing about the history of science, and an early lesson in how to make your writing more interesting.
Back in 1982, like many of the other boys at my school, I was encouraged to apply for the Oxbridge entrance examinations. My classmates and I were all studying Maths, Further Maths, and Physics for our ‘A’ levels. Someone on the school staff must have realised that a bunch of science nerds like us might be a bit rusty when it came to stringing entire sentences together in the form of exam essays. So one of the school’s English teachers was deployed to give us occasional writing assignments, to try to blow out some of the dust and cobwebs from the abandoned literary sections of our brains.
One of our essay assignments—taken from a past Oxbridge entrance exam paper, if memory serves—was worded something along the lines of the following (I doubtless misquote, after 33 years):
Writing in the early seventeenth century, Francis Bacon described printing, gunpowder, and the magnet (i.e. the nautical compass) as the three inventions that had most altered the modern world. If Bacon were writing today, how might his choice of inventions be different?
Quite an good question to set a science student with a developing outside-school interest in the history of science. So I rattled off my essay, more than partially inspired, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to recall, by my avid reading of Joseph Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man, and James Burke’s Connections. I then no doubt got on with the far more pressing matter of my latest calculus homework.
When my essay was returned a few days later, the English teacher had entered an embarrassing number of ✗s in the margin, and had scrawled C- and SEE ME across the bottom. This was unheard of for me. Although I was studying science for my ‘A’ levels, before I chose to specialise, I had, without any false modesty, been a pretty good all-rounder. I could knock out a simple essay, no problem. Not wishing to boast, but Richard Carter didn’t get C-minuses—and he certainly didn’t get SEE MEs.
So, I went, as instructed, to see the teacher. He was very nice about it, explaining that he knew I was intelligent, and that I could write, so what on earth had gone wrong? I had, he said, totally misinterpreted the question.
I must have looked baffled. So the teacher explained that I was supposed to have written about important inventions that had taken place since Francis Bacon’s time, but, instead, I had written, in some cases, about stuff that had been invented way before Bacon had even been born!
The penny then dropped. I explained that I had thought the question meant, if Francis Bacon had been writing today with our modern knowledge of human history, how might his choices of world-altering inventions have been different? So, whereas I had agreed with Bacon when it came to printing, and half-endorsed his choice of the magnet (for non-navigational reasons, citing the electric generator, which involves magnets, as a world-altering invention), my essay’s main contention was that perhaps mankind’s most important invention was our first invention: our first primitive tool, whatever it might have been. It was the invention of invention itself that made us into what we are, and the modern world into what it is. I think I must have had the flung bone turning into a spaceship in 2001: a Space Odyssey more than a little in mind when I wrote my essay.
It was now the English teacher’s turn to look baffled. He grabbed my essay back from me, re-read the question at the top of the page, and exclaimed something of the lines of: “Bloody hell! You’re right! The question can be interpreted in two totally different ways!” To his eternal credit, he then began to re-read my essay, nodding at times, adding occasional ticks, and even muttering, “Good! Good!” more than once. Having finished, he cleverly amended the C- to an A-, congratulated me for having identified an interesting slant to the question, and told me never to darken the door of his study again.
In all honesty, I think I did misinterpret the question. Even though the question was open to multiple interpretations, the more usual interpretation—the intended interpretation; the one that all the other students in my class had understood—hadn’t even occurred to me. But the experience did at least teach me that coming up with an unusual slant to a particular topic can make your writing stand out from the crowd.
If only I could remember that lesson once in a while.
Postscript: I eventually finished Wootton’s book. Read my review.